Musical form

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In music, form refers to the structure of a musical composition or performance. In his book, Worlds of Music, Jeff Todd Titon suggests that a number of organizational elements may determine the formal structure of a piece of music, such as "the arrangement of musical units of rhythm, melody, and/or harmony that show repetition or variation, the arrangement of the instruments (as in the order of solos in a jazz or bluegrass performance), or the way a symphonic piece is orchestrated", among other factors. [1] It is, "the ways in which a composition is shaped to create a meaningful musical experience for the listener." [2]


"Form refers to the largest shape of the composition. Form in music is the result of the interaction of the four structural elements described above [sound, harmony, melody, rhythm]." [3]

These organizational elements may be broken into smaller units called phrases, which express a musical idea but lack sufficient weight to stand alone. [4] Musical form unfolds over time through the expansion and development of these ideas. In tonal harmony, form is articulated primarily through cadences, phrases, and periods. [2] "Form refers to the larger shape of the composition. Form in music is the result of the interaction of the four structural elements," of sound, harmony, melody, and rhythm. [3]

Although, it has been recently stated that form can be present under the influence of musical contour, also known as Contouric Form. [5] In 2017, Scott Saewitz brought attention to this concept by highlighting the occurrence in Anton Webern's Op.16 No.2.

Compositions that do not follow a fixed structure and rely more on improvisation are considered free-form. A fantasia is an example of this. [6] Composer Debussy in 1907 wrote that, "I am more and more convinced that music is not, in essence, a thing that can be cast into a traditional and fixed form. It is made up of colors and rhythms." [7]


To aid in the process of describing form, musicians have developed a simple system of labeling musical units with letters. In his textbook Listening to Music, professor Craig Wright writes:

The first statement of a musical idea is designated A. Subsequent contrasting sections are labeled B, C, D, and so on. If the first or any other musical unit returns in varied form, then that variation is indicated by a superscript number—A1 and B2, for example. Subdivisions of each large musical unit are shown by lowercase letters (a, b, and so on). [8]

Some writers also use a prime label (such as B′, pronounced "B prime", or B″, pronounced "B double prime") to denote sections that are closely related, but vary slightly.

Levels of organization

The founding level of musical form can be divided into two parts:


The smallest level of construction concerns the way musical phrases are organized into musical sentences and "paragraphs" such as the verse of a song. This may be compared to, and is often decided by, the verse form or meter of the words or the steps of a dance.

For example, the twelve bar blues is a specific verse form, while common meter is found in many hymns and ballads and, again, the Elizabethan galliard, like many dances, requires a certain rhythm, pace and length of melody to fit its repeating pattern of steps. Simpler styles of music may be more or less wholly defined at this level of form, which therefore does not differ greatly from the loose sense first mentioned and which may carry with it rhythmic, harmonic, timbral, occasional and melodic conventions.

Piece (or movement)

The next level concerns the entire structure of any single self-contained musical piece or movement. If the hymn, ballad, blues or dance alluded to above simply repeats the same musical material indefinitely then the piece is said to be in strophic form overall. If it repeats with distinct, sustained changes each time, for instance in setting, ornamentation or instrumentation, then the piece is a theme and variations. If two distinctly different themes are alternated indefinitely, as in a song alternating verse and chorus or in the alternating slow and fast sections of the Hungarian czardas, then this gives rise to a simple binary form. If the theme is played (perhaps twice), then a new theme is introduced, the piece then closing with a return to the first theme, we have a simple ternary form.

Great arguments and misunderstanding can be generated by such terms as 'ternary' and 'binary', as a complex piece may have elements of both at different organizational levels.[ citation needed ] A minuet, like any Baroque dance, generally had a simple binary structure (AABB), however, this was frequently extended by the introduction of another minuet arranged for solo instruments (called the trio), after which the first was repeated again and the piece ended—this is a ternary form—ABA: the piece is binary on the lower compositional level but ternary on the higher. Organisational levels are not clearly and universally defined in western musicology, while words like "section" and "passage" are used at different levels by different scholars whose definitions, as Schlanker[ full citation needed ] points out, cannot keep pace with the myriad innovations and variations devised by musicians.


The grandest level of organization may be referred to as "cyclical form".[ citation needed ] It concerns the arrangement of several self-contained pieces into a large-scale composition. For example, a set of songs with a related theme may be presented as a song-cycle, whereas a set of Baroque dances were presented as a suite. The opera and ballet may organize song and dance into even larger forms. The symphony, generally considered to be one piece, nevertheless divides into multiple movements (which can usually work as a self-contained piece if played alone). This level of musical form, though it again applies and gives rise to different genres, takes more account of the methods of musical organisation used. For example: a symphony, a concerto and a sonata differ in scale and aim, yet generally resemble one another in the manner of their organization. The individual pieces which make up the larger form may be called movements.

Common forms in Western music

Scholes suggested that European classical music had only six stand-alone forms: simple binary, simple ternary, compound binary, rondo, air with variations, and fugue (although musicologist Alfred Mann emphasized that the fugue is primarily a method of composition that has sometimes taken on certain structural conventions). [10]

Charles Keil classified forms and formal detail as "sectional, developmental, or variational." [11]

Sectional form

This form is built from a sequence of clear-cut units [12] that may be referred to by letters but also often have generic names such as introduction and coda, exposition, development and recapitulation, verse, chorus or refrain, and bridge. Sectional forms include:

Strophic form

Strophic form – also called verse-repeating form, chorus form, AAA song form, or one-part song form – is a song structure in which all verses or stanzas of the text are sung to the same music

Medley or "chain" form

Medley, potpourri or chain form is the extreme opposite, that of "unrelieved variation": it is simply an indefinite sequence of self-contained sections (ABCD...), sometimes with repeats (AABBCCDD...).

Binary form

"Greensleeves" as an example of Binary Form. Greensleeves.gif
"Greensleeves" as an example of Binary Form.

The term "Binary Form" is used to describe a musical piece with two sections that are about equal in length. Binary Form can be written as AB or AABB. [13] Using the example of Greensleeves provided, the first system is almost identical to the second system. We call the first system A and the second system A′ (A prime) because of the slight difference in the last measure and a half. The next two systems (3rd and 4th) are almost identical as well, but a new musical idea entirely than the first two systems. We call the third system B and the fourth system B' (B prime) because of the slight difference in the last measure and a half. As a whole, this piece of music is in Binary Form: AA′BB′. [13]

Ternary form

Ternary form is a three-part musical form in which the third part repeats or at least contains the principal idea of the first part, represented as ABA. [14] There are both simple and compound ternary forms. Da capo arias are usually in simple ternary form (i.e. "from the head"). A compound ternary form (or trio form) similarly involves an ABA pattern, but each section is itself either in binary (two sub-sections which may be repeated) or (simple) ternary form.

Rondo form

This form has a recurring theme alternating with different (usually contrasting) sections called "episodes". It may be asymmetrical (ABACADAEA) or symmetrical (ABACABA). A recurring section, especially the main theme, is sometimes more thoroughly varied, or else one episode may be a "development" of it. A similar arrangement is the ritornello form of the Baroque concerto grosso. Arch form (ABCBA) resembles a symmetrical rondo without intermediate repetitions of the main theme.

Variational form

Variational forms are those in which variation is an important formative element.

Theme and Variations: a theme, which in itself can be of any shorter form (binary, ternary, etc.), forms the only "section" and is repeated indefinitely (as in strophic form) but is varied each time (A,B,A,F,Z,A), so as to make a sort of sectional chain form. An important variant of this, much used in 17th-century British music and in the Passacaglia and Chaconne, was that of the ground bass—a repeating bass theme or basso ostinato over and around which the rest of the structure unfolds, often, but not always, spinning polyphonic or contrapuntal threads, or improvising divisions and descants. This is said by Scholes (1977) to be the form par excellence of unaccompanied or accompanied solo instrumental music. The Rondo is often found with sections varied (AA1BA2CA3BA4) or (ABA1CA2B1A).

Sonata-allegro form

Sonata-allegro form (also sonata form or first movement form) is typically cast in a greater ternary form, having the nominal subdivisions of exposition, development and recapitulation. Usually, but not always, the "A" parts (exposition and recapitulation, respectively) may be subdivided into two or three themes or theme groups which are taken asunder and recombined to form the "B" part (the development)—thus, e.g. (AabB[dev. of a and/or b]A1ab1+coda).

The sonata form is "the most important principle of musical form, or formal type from the classical period well into the twentieth century." [15] It is usually used as the form of the first movement in multi-movement works. So, it is also called "first-movement form" or "sonata-allegro form" (because usually the most common first movements are in allegro tempo). [16]

Each section of sonata form movement has its own function:

  • It may have an introduction at the beginning.
  • Following the introduction, the exposition is the first required section. It lays out the thematic material in its basic version. There are usually two themes or theme groups in the exposition, and they are often in contrasting styles and keys and connected by a transition. In the end of the exposition, there is a closing theme which concludes the section.
  • The exposition is followed by the development section in which the material in the exposition is developed.
  • After the development section, there is a returning section called recapitulation where the thematic material returns in the tonic key.
  • At the end of the movement, there may be a coda , after the recapitulation. [16]

Some forms are used predominantly within popular music, including genre-specific forms. Popular music forms are often derived from strophic form (AAA song form), 32-bar form (AABA song form), verse-chorus form (AB song form) and 12-bar blues form (AAB song form). [17]

Sectional forms

See [17]

Extended forms

Extended form are forms that have their root in one of the forms above, however, they have been extended with additional sections. For example:

Compound forms

Also called Hybrid song forms. Compound song forms blend together two or more song forms. [17]

Cyclical forms

In the 13th century the song cycle emerged, which is a set of related songs (as the suite is a set of related dances). The oratorio took shape in the second half of the 16th century as a narrative recounted—rather than acted—by the singers.[ clarification needed ]

See also


  1. See also: Meter (music)

Related Research Articles

Sonata form is a musical structure generally consisting of three main sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. It has been used widely since the middle of the 18th century.

Binary form is a musical form in 2 related sections, both of which are usually repeated. Binary is also a structure used to choreograph dance. In music this is usually performed as A-A-B-B.

In music, a coda is a passage that brings a piece to an end. It may be as simple as a few measures, or as complex as an entire section.

The Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, by Johannes Brahms was completed during the summer of 1864 and published in 1865. It was dedicated to Her Royal Highness Princess Anna of Hesse. As with most piano quintets composed after Robert Schumann's Piano Quintet (1842), it is written for piano and string quartet.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Strophic form</span> Type of song structure

Strophic form – also called verse-repeating form, chorus form, AAA song form, or one-part song form – is a song structure in which all verses or stanzas of the text are sung to the same music. Contrasting song forms include through-composed, with new music written for every stanza, and ternary form, with a contrasting central section.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thirty-two-bar form</span> Song structure

The 32-bar form, also known as the AABA song form, American popular song form and the ballad form, is a song structure commonly found in Tin Pan Alley songs and other American popular music, especially in the first half of the 20th century.

Verse–chorus form is a musical form going back to the 1840s, in such songs as "Oh! Susanna", "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze", and many others. It became passé in the early 1900s, with advent of the AABA form in the Tin Pan Alley days. It became commonly used in blues and rock and roll in the 1950s, and predominant in rock music since the 1960s. In contrast to 32-bar form, which is focused on the refrain, in verse–chorus form the chorus is highlighted.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Recapitulation (music)</span> The return to initial themes in a composition

In music theory, the recapitulation is one of the sections of a movement written in sonata form. The recapitulation occurs after the movement's development section, and typically presents once more the musical themes from the movement's exposition. This material is most often recapitulated in the tonic key of the movement, in such a way that it reaffirms that key as the movement's home key.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Piano Sonata No. 1 (Beethoven)</span> Piano sonata composed by Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2 No. 1, was written in 1795 and dedicated to Joseph Haydn. It was published simultaneously with his second and third piano sonatas in 1796.

In music, the conclusion is the ending of a composition and may take the form of a coda or outro.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Repetition (music)</span> In music, the repeated use of a sound or sequence

Repetition is important in music, where sounds or sequences are often repeated. It may be called restatement, such as the restatement of a theme. While it plays a role in all music, with noise and musical tones lying along a spectrum from irregular to periodic sounds, it is especially prominent in specific styles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Symphony No. 10 (Schubert)</span>

Schubert's Symphony No. 10 in D major, D 936A, is an unfinished work that survives in a piano sketch. Written during the last weeks of the composer's short life, it was only properly identified in the 1970s. It has been orchestrated by Brian Newbould in a completion that has subsequently been performed, published and recorded.

The Piano Sonata in A minor D. 845 (Op.42) by Franz Schubert is a sonata for solo piano. Composed in May 1825 and entitled Premiere Grande Sonata, it is the first of three sonatas published during the composer's lifetime, the others being D.850 and D.894. Conceived as a set, these works were composed during what was reportedly a period of relatively good health and spirits for Schubert, and are praised for their quality and ambition. This first sonata in particular marks a significant step toward the composer’s mature piano sonata style; the format and several characteristic stylistic elements continue through the last.

Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 36, is a piano sonata in B-flat minor composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1913, who revised it in 1931, with the note, "The new version, revised and reduced by author."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Schubert's last sonatas</span> Compositions by Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert's last three piano sonatas, D 958, 959 and 960, are his last major compositions for solo piano. They were written during the last months of his life, between the spring and autumn of 1828, but were not published until about ten years after his death, in 1838–39. Like the rest of Schubert's piano sonatas, they were mostly neglected in the 19th century. By the late 20th century, however, public and critical opinion had changed, and these sonatas are now considered among the most important of the composer's mature masterpieces. They are part of the core piano repertoire, appearing regularly on concert programs and recordings.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Symphony No. 21 (Haydn)</span>

The Symphony No. 21 in A major, Hoboken I/21, was composed by Joseph Haydn around the year 1764. The symphony’s movements have unusual structures that make their form hard to identify. The parts that pertain to sonata form are often hard to recognize immediately and are often identified “only in retrospect.”

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Piano Quartet No. 1 (Brahms)</span>

The Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25, was composed by Johannes Brahms between 1856 and 1861. It was premiered in 1861 in Hamburg, with Clara Schumann at the piano. It was also played in Vienna on 16 November 1862, with Brahms himself at the piano supported by members of the Hellmesberger Quartet. Like most piano quartets, it is scored for piano, violin, viola, and cello.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Transition (music)</span>

A transition is a passage of music composed to link one section of music to another. Transitions often function as a moment of transformation and may, or may not in themselves, introduce new, musical material.

A slow movement is a form in a multi-movement musical piece. Generally, the second movement of a piece will be written as a slow movement, although composers occasionally write other movements as a slow movement as well. The tempo of a slow movement can vary from largo to andante. It is usually in the dominant, subdominant, parallel, or relative key of the musical work's main key.


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Further reading